Recently I was reminded of the death of a colleague of mine (Harold "Light Bulb" Bryant) when I encountered a harsh critique from an African-American soldier who had fought in Vietnam. His anger and resentment echoed in the stories I heard from Harold and from some of those recalled in the Wallace Terry book, Blood: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984). What people so often forget is what these battle-weary men faced upon their return home. What these courageous men who fought in Vietnam expected to hear when they returned home to the United States was applause, approval and smiling faces. Instead of a heroes welcome, they were met with protesters and antagonistic liberals; who spat on them and called them baby killers. Tenacious coverage of the war by the media only served to reinforce pictures of horror and dread, and probably led to this behavior. In any event, for the men willing to sacrifice their lives and forced by a war to watch their friends and fellow soldiers die, this treatment just seemed inconceivable. Even worse, for the young African-American soldier, the Civil-Rights struggle that he left back home had yet to yield its proverbial fruits. So returning home for them was even more bitter-sweet than for their Caucasian compatriots. Add to this the noncommittal attitude that the government demonstrated towards the war effort and one can begin to appreciate the magnitude of disenchantment that these men must have experienced.
Unlike the WW2 veterans who went before them and were offered opportunities at every corner, the stereotypical response that numerous Americans had of these Vietnam War veterans was an image of defeat, drug abuse, and shame. In truth, these men had been sent to a foreign land to fight a war that the American government never resolved itself to win. The ambiguous decisions of the policymakers and their failure to fully commit to the war left thousands of families in mourning, and many more thousands of vets wondering aimlessly. In particular, black soldiers left Vietnam wondering about the struggle for equality going on in a nation that seemed somehow to neglect and marginalize them. Black soldiers were unwanted when they left, and unwanted again when they returned home, despite their gallantry in a far-away land. Nonetheless, black or white, these men faced similar difficulties, and the resultant despondency that many of them shared due to the war was widespread.